There hasn't been a team in the NFL that has generated more conversation and speculation this offseason than the Oakland Raiders. The team has been highly aggressive in free agency and possesses three first-round picks in the 2019 NFL draft—including No. 4 overall.
A significant amount of the buzz surrounding the Raiders at present centers around the team's future at the quarterback position—whether head coach Jon Gruden and new general manager Mike Mayock will give Derek Carr one more shot under center or draft his replacement in Round 1 on April 25.
If Mayock and Gruden are smart they'll take what's behind door No. 1 and afford Carr one more season to try and show he can lead the silver and black back to respectability. While the 28-year-old isn't cheap (Carr will make $20 million in 2019) and is coming off just a so-so season, building around him in advance of a deeper 2020 class at quarterback is the way to go.
As Matt Kawahara reported for the San Francisco Chronicle, Gruden gave Carr an unequivocal vote of confidence at the recent NFL owner's meetings.
“He’s going to be our quarterback,” Gruden said. “I could care less about the rumors. He threw for 4,100 yards, threw for almost 70 percent in a very dire, tough circumstance. So, I’ve got a lot of confidence in Carr.”
Despite the team's equivocations, its actions have helped fuel the gossip. The Raiders have hosted both Oklahoma's Kyler Murray and Ohio State's Dwyane Haskins for private workouts, and Mayock allowed that they will kick the tires on all of this year's top quarterback prospects.
“I’ve said before … Derek Carr is a franchise quarterback, and we believe that,” Mayock said. “Beyond that, just like at any other position, we’re going to do our due diligence. If we found somebody we liked better, or thought had a bigger upside, you’ve got to do the right thing for the organization.
“But we love Derek. We love what he brings to the table. But like every other position, we’re going to do all of our due diligence. And I happen to work with a head coach that absolutely loves the position. And we’re always going to know about those guys.”
In other words, Carr's absolutely the guy—unless he isn't.
That bit of Eggo-ing—and reports that Oakland's interest in both Murray and Haskins goes well beyond "due diligence"—have ramped up the speculation that Oakland could select a signal-caller in Round 1 this year. Some mock drafts have gone so far as to suggest the Raiders could trade up to No. 1 to snag Murray.
That would be a mistake, and not just because such a trade would cost Oakland one more of their first-rounders.
While the Raiders had a miserable 4-12 season in Gruden's first year at the helm, the notion that Carr was to blame just doesn't hold up.
There's no debating that Carr struggled over the first six weeks or so of last season. When Oakland headed into its bye fresh off a humiliating loss in London during which Carr passed for just 142 yards, he had thrown for more interceptions than touchdowns, the Raiders were 1-5 and there were reports that they had all but quit on the sixth-year pro.
However, by season's end Carr had set career highs in completion percentage (68.9), passing yards (4,049) and yards per attempt (7.3). His passer rating of 93.9 was the second-best of his career. And he wound up with a plus-nine touchdown-to-interception ratio.
All that, while playing behind an underperforming offensive line with a less-than-imposing cadre of pass-catchers at Carr's disposal. Oakland's best receiver last year, Jared Cook, was a tight end the wrong side of 30. Michael Crabtree was let go before the season and Amari Cooper was traded to the Dallas Cowboys during it. Jordy Nelson looked his age in his lone season with the Raiders (and last in the NFL).
For all the flak Carr caught for failing to challenge defenses over the top, he wasn't swimming in opportunities to do so. And when he did, Carr was actually among the most accurate quarterbacks in the league.
Both Carr's offensive line and passing-game weapons should be vastly improved in 2019. Cook is gone, but the Raiders added arguably the NFL's best wide receiver in Antonio Brown and another wideout with a 1,000-yard season on his resume in Tyrell Williams. Oakland sank big money into the O-line by giving left tackle Trent Brown $66 million over four years.
This isn't to say that the Raiders' problems have all been solved—on either side of the ball. After ranking 26th in total defense and dead last in sacks, their defense needs work. But that leaky defense is all the more reason to focus Oakland's substantial first-round draft capital on problems the team does have right now rather than fixing ones it doesn't—especially in a draft that's loaded with defensive talent.
What this draft isn't loaded at is quarterback. Yes, Haskins or Murray could go on to become stars at the professional level. But neither's a sure bet. Murray's an undersized one-year starter. Haskins is similarly inexperienced, with a funky throwing motion and without much mobility.
The class of 2020 is almost universally regarded as better than this year's. Alabama's Tua Tagovailoa. Oregon's Justin Herbert. Jake Fromm of Georgia. K.J. Costello of Stanford. Jacob Eason of Washington. All of them are regarded as potential first-round picks in 2020, and at least one NFL team is reportedly willing to punt on 2019 to get the one they want.
The Raiders may improve in 2019, but, on paper, they still look like a fourth-place team in the AFC West. That's going to mean a relatively high pick in next year's draft—and Oakland is still in possession of Chicago's first-rounder in 2020.
The Raiders will be in position to make a move up if they choose.
Finally, there's the matter of Carr's contract. The Raiders won't release him this year—the cap hit would be cost-prohibitive. A trade would get Carr's salary off the books, but finding a partner willing to both sacrifice a relatively high draft pick and take on Carr's salary could be easier said than done.
However, in 2020 it's a different story. Per Over the Cap, releasing Carr after this season would entail just a $5 million cap hit—and $16.5 million off the books.
If Carr doesn't take a step forward in 2019, cutting bait after the season (and adding a quarterback in next year's draft) wouldn't be difficult to pull off.
There's no guarantee that Derek Carr is the long-term answer at quarterback for the Raiders. But he didn't play that badly a season ago, despite a weak surrounding cast. And not that long ago, in 2016, just about everyone was sure he'd be a franchise cornerstone as Oakland went 12-3 in Carr's starts during a Pro Bowl campaign with a plus-22 touchdown-to-interception ratio.
It's not time to give up on Carr. Not yet. Not this year. Not given the totality of the circumstances surrounding him, the team and the draft class both this year and next.
Stay the course.
The alternative is one step forward and two steps back.